There’s no pit in the stomach quite so deep as the one that develops when the end is in sight after four years (or five, or six) of continual effort focused on completion of a baccalaureate. There are a fortunate few who know what they want to do when they graduate and have locked in on the next goal. I wasn’t one of those and neither were 80% of my friends. So here are three suggestions for the rest of us.
1. Consider graduate school an option, not a mandatory, immediate decision
You simply don’t have to re-up for another hitch at the university just because you’ve completed your degree. The prototypical college student has been in a classroom for seventeen years out of twenty two or twenty three total years on the planet. That might be reason enough right there for a little time off. There’s an argument to be made, and a valid one, that many of us who decide to take “a year or two off” never make it back. Life intervenes, and we’re into the adult world of career/family/expensive possessions that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to return to serious academic endeavor.
But the median age for college students today is well into the twenties, and the stereotypical four-year student who matriculated right out of high school no longer represents the bulk of the student body population on many campuses. Lots of students have found their way to a university with time spent first working or attending a community college or both. These students tend to be a little more pragmatic about taking on higher learning when and where that is possible; we think that’s a great approach for every new college graduate. A little time in the work force might be a welcome change from the classroom grind and it might also be an incentive for return to graduate school.
2. Get the dreaded loan beast under control
Most of us today graduate with a framed diploma and a really big invoice. The loans become the primary economic driving force for many graduates, who feel that getting that debt behind them should be among the top priorities of early adulthood. That’s a laudable goal, but it’s not the only approach a responsible college graduate need take. The loans are going to be there for years regardless of how hard you scramble to pay them off. If you look on college loans as an investment, rather than a burden, they might not loom so darkly every month when you’re paying bills. If the loans control your priorities, they can also control career options and grad school decisions.
Regardless of the endless magazine articles about the net worth of this master’s or that doctorate, the essential question is: “what does that degree mean to you?” If it’s important to your sense of self to complete a graduate degree, that’s got nothing to do with the formula that a Forbes reporter is using to compute the value of post-graduate work. If a graduate program takes you to research opportunities that have captured your intellectual fancy, then the financial aspect of investing in another degree should be secondary to a career that meets your professional interests and maximizes your ability.
3. Prioritize the next few years, not the rest of your life
Graduation day is not the start of a marathon; it’s the completion of an important phase of your life, but only the first phase. There is nothing wrong with that uncertainty lurking in your mind when you take off the mortarboard. You are not alone; you are among the majority of your graduating peers. If you can’t see beyond a stopgap job for now, that’s okay. Moving back home or living with a sibling is not an admission of defeat. However, it’s important not to let a hiatus after graduation turn into a massive cloud of inertia.
Little victories are sometimes the most important. Finding a source of income, whether or not it has anything to do with your major, will help to put you back on solid ground. It’s an important first step. Working for six months and just being off the campus is going to change your perspective in ways that had not occurred to you; new life scenarios do that. These kinds of new experiences can be learning opportunities if you don’t look on them as evidence of indecision or some sort of immediate disappointment. There is no growth like that which we experience in academia, but for 95% of us that world is simply the first of many working environments. Realize its gifts by building on them, and understand that campus learning is just the most concentrated form of lifelong learning.
Bob Hartzell writes on jobs and education for several education websites including Master Degree Online.com on a variety of topics including masters, graduate and PhD programs. He addresses the issues confronted by would-be college & MBA students and professionals returning to school trying to develop career options.